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The University of Pretoria: Finding Solutions for the World’s Most Pressing Issues

Elena Galán-Muros

We are delighted to welcome one of Africa’s top universities, the University of Pretoria, to the UIIN Community. After an impressive performance at our annual conference as part of a panel on the future of global higher education, it was a pleasure to speak to Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University, to learn more about his vision for the University and its extensive global partnership initiatives. 

As one of South Africa’s largest research universities, the University of Pretoria aims to produce socially impactful research to find solutions for the world’s most pressing issues. In attaining this societal relevancy, strategic partnerships are highly important. The University therefore collaborates on various levels – with universities, industry, governments, and non-profit organisations. This variety of partnerships provides opportunities for joint research, staff and student mobility and joint programmes and also functions as a “vital source of income for two things that are critical to what the University does: 1) training graduates for the job market, and 2) producing research that is contextually relevant to various industries”. 

We believe that partnerships and collaborations matter and that working across borders and boundaries in terms of curricula, research and relationships is the way forward for the 21st century.

The University of Pretoria has established itself as a global university through developing partnerships with universities across the world, and being involved in several alliances in Africa, Europe, the United States of America (USA), Canada and Australia. In the Australia-Africa University Network for instance, a network with 12 Australian and 12 African Universities, Professor Kupe is the African co-President. In addition to these alliances, the University has developed strong ties and individual partnerships with universities in Canada, the UK and USA. These partnerships can be extremely valuable to students. For instance, a joint programme on Emerging Markets with Fordham University has provided many opportunities to the University graduates. “ was a boy who had never gone to a big city in his life until he came to the University of Pretoria and then entered this programme, and now he works at this major company ,” tells Professor Kupe.

Industry partnerships are just as important to the University of Pretoria, and this is reflected in how the University manages its industry relations. Two of their key collaboration initiatives, for example, involve the instalment of advisory boards with industry partners and industry sponsor chairs. The advisory boards oversee some of the engineering and business schools and offer advisory services for the curricula, the positioning of the school and for training and education that respond to the market needs, while industry sponsor chairs provide more monetary support, such as through scholarships for students and also through sponsoring of research and its commercialisation. Another example of the University’s collaboration initiatives is TuksNovation, a UP technology business incubator that provides specialised product and business development support to start-ups. Through partnerships, TuksNovation provides an ecosystem for corporates to support new and upcoming start-ups and collaborates with student entrepreneurial challenges and events to give students the opportunity to engage with the start-up community.

Some of Professor Kupe’s goals in university-industry engagement for the coming years also relate to these types of initiatives. With two centres for entrepreneurship, the University aims to position itself as an entrepreneurial university that not only educates students to find jobs, but also supports them to become entrepreneurs in their own right. More comprehensive advisory boards that advise on the relevancy of educational and entrepreneurial activities for industry, and industry chairs that financially support these activities through named infrastructure, scholarships and bursaries could contribute significantly to this goal. Furthermore, Professor Kupe would like to increase the number of internship opportunities with industry partners to help students get more familiarised with the work environment. In the same vision, the University already runs a ‘ready to work programme’ and a free online entrepreneurship course for all students who are interested.

should be a joint effort, a partnership where you co-create the graduate skills.

In establishing the various collaborations with industry, encountering challenges is inevitable. A challenge that occasionally occurs for instance, is the mismatch in the understanding of roles and responsibilities of the University and industry partners. “There is a difference between education and training. Education is about producing critical thinking and analytical skills, the ability to write, to design, the ability to think about new things – whereas training is much more the hands-on element, working towards a very definite outcome”, explains Professor Kupe. In his experience industry sometimes lacks this understanding – that a university student is being taught the fundamentals of knowledge and some degrees of training, but it simulates the work environment. Both in industry collaborations and industry placements, industry should understand that training and education should be “a joint effort, a partnership where you co-create the graduate skills”. This understanding, therefore, is improved considerably through the advisory boards at the University, where industry partners can closely follow the students’ learning paths and clearly discuss all expectations.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic also posed challenges to the University, forcing it to think about the changing nature of work and possible hybrid study environments. To collaboratively address these issues, the University launched the Centre for the Future of Work about two months ago. It was inspired by the first ever Nobel Prize Dialogues on the African continent, where the future of work as its theme was discussed by students, researchers, opinion leaders and policymakers. Soon after the event, the Centre for the Future of Work was launched with the aim of researching the emerging world of work, and creating knowledge about it that can inform policies, regulations and practices for their country, continent, and world to be future fit.

Addressing the future of work for broader society, universities are proactively researching digitalisation and the new normal for working life in a variety of ways, including whether the future of work will be largely remote, a return to the pre-COVID era or a hybrid approach. According to Professor Kupe, the latter is the most likely and he believes we need to engender an entirely new work life culture for this, with technology as an equaliser, enabler of productivity, employment, and lifelong learning for all citizens.

We are excited to see what impact the new centre will have on future proofing the University and how the University of Pretoria will evolve in the coming years. One thing is sure: external engagement and entrepreneurialism – two topics close to our hearts at UIIN – will be at the core of the University’s changes, as Professor Kupe also conveys in his message to the UIIN community: “We at the University of Pretoria, consider ourselves a future-orientated and future-focused university. We believe that partnerships and collaborations matter and that working across borders and boundaries in terms of curricula, research and relationships is the way forward for the 21st century. We believe synergies between partners will produce what matters for creating value in the world.”

Professor Tawana Kupe

Want to learn more about the University of Pretoria or share any thoughts?
Get in contact with Rikus Delport, Director Institutional Advancement, by email: [email protected]

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